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Is Intelligent Debate Breaking Out in the Amazon Hachette Media Circus?

As an inveterate media watcher, I have long become accustomed to the fact that – in the book industry echo chamber – the most strident voices talking about this story are generally lined up against Amazon.

Happily, the same cannot be said for the rest of the media. Will O’Neil, author and guest blogger here on The Digital Reader, has been tracking the fallout of a piece which was published in The New Republic late last week. He’s found three columns which call into question the arguments which Franklin Foer made in his piece in TNR, and I’d like to share them with you (along with Barry Eisler, making 4 pieces).

Now, I had read Foer’s piece last week but ignored it (I prefer jokes which are actually funny). This, for example, sets the tone:

Shopping on Amazon has so ingrained itself in modern American life that it has become something close to our unthinking habit, and the company has achieved a level of dominance that merits the application of a very old label: monopoly. 

That term doesn’t get tossed around much these days, but it should. Amazon is the shining representative of a new golden age of monopoly that also includes Google and Walmart.

Barry Eisler, on the other hand, responded with a thorough fisking of that premise:

Holy shit, “Amazon is a monopoly” doesn’t get tossed around much these days?! Did Foer even read the George Packer piece he cites in his own article, in which Packer repeatedly plays the “Amazon is a monopoly!” fear card? Has he ever heard of the “Authors Guild” or “Authors United,” each of which has repeatedly, explicitly, accused Amazon of being a monopoly? Has he read David Streitfeld in the New York Times, or Laura Miller in Salon? I’ve seen countless posts with titles like, Amazon: Malignant Monopoly or Just Plain Evil? I’ve seen op-eds in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, all peddling the same tired, tendentious fear-mongering line about Amazon being a monopoly. Seriously, just Google “Amazon Hachette Monopoly” and see what you come up with.

He goes on from there to vivisect Foer’s piece and leave the carcass twitching on the ground. It’s a fun read, but Eisler’s not the only one to turn his attention on Foer’s arguments.

You might want to sit down for this next bit.

Joe Nocera penned a response for the NY Times yesterday. Yes, that paper.

While he freely admits that he wants Hachette to win (gotta admire him for his honesty) Nocera still takes time to demolish Foer’s arguments. What’s more, he ends his column with the single most succinct statement why Amazon is so hated in certain circles:

Let’s be honest here: The intelligentsia is focused on Amazon not because it sells pinto beans or toilets, but because it sells books. That’s their business. Amazon is changing the book industry in ways that threaten to diminish the role of publishers and traditional ways of publishing. Its battle with Hachette is a battle over control. It’s not terribly different from the forces that ultimately disintermediated the music business.

I’m not sure if that explains Streitfeld, but it does explain why a lot of the book world hates Amazon. That retailer is a threat to the status quo, and that scares many.

That fear has led to overstatements Amazon’s influence and market share, leading some to call Amazon a monopoly. Alas, as Vox explained on Friday, Amazon has far too much competition for that claim to pass muster:

In the sale of physical objects it faces fierce competition from the likes of Walmart (whose market capitalization is still worth about $100 billion more than Amazon’s), Target, Home Depot, Ikea, the Gap, and other major retail chains. In the sale of digital goods it faces fierce competition from Apple and Google. It is true that in some of these markets Amazon has a rather dominant market share. But having a lot of the market is not the same as having a monopoly. A monopoly needs to involve a lack of choice and some kind of barrier to entry. Everyone gets their e-books from Amazon because they’re just as cheap as Apple’s e-books, but they work on a much broader range of devices. But if Amazon started offering an inferior e-book product to Apple’s, then customers could and would switch.

Gee, I wonder where I have heard that before?

Well, I have pointed out related facts in the past, but also NY Magazine made a similar argument in their rebuttal to Foer’s piece. Yes, not one but two MSM publications are using facts to refute an ant-Amazon screed:

Moreover, Amazon faces fierce competition from traditional retailers, taking but a tiny slice of the $4.5 trillion overall retail pie. Amazon is about the same size as Target, sales-wise, and a little smaller than Kroger. All three get dwarfed by Walmart, which generated about half a trillion in revenue last year. And in strategic areas where Amazon has set its sights on growth — like same-day delivery and cloud computing — the company also faces fierce competition from well-funded rivals, as my colleague Kevin Roose has noted.

I don’t know about you, but I find the responses to the piece in The New Republic reassuring.

That was a particularly egregious offense against reason, making it the equivalent of low hanging fruit, so it was an easy target for rebuttal. But the fact that 3 different publications bothered to respond tells me that the anti-Amazon alliance is not nearly as strong outside of the book world as it is inside.

As I (and many others) have said before, most of the anti-Amazon coverage is merely preaching to the choir. The rest of the congregation is listening to someone else, and until Hachette and its media allies start getting the attention of said congregation the media campaign is not going to have nearly the impact that they think it does.

image  by misko13

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Anne October 14, 2014 um 8:07 pm

I was feeling pretty good about it myself until I saw that Bloomberg took their video cameras to Patterson-

Nate Hoffelder October 14, 2014 um 8:21 pm

I feel bad for Patterson.

William D. O’Neil October 14, 2014 um 8:29 pm


Richard Herley October 15, 2014 um 4:38 am

He suggests a boycott (a real one) by sympathetic authors as being the next step. If he and his fellows are serious, if they really mean what they say, they should put pressure on Hachette and the other Big 4 to withdraw all their titles from Amazon.

In other words, put up or shut up.

This has gone beyond a joke and tends to make all writers look like spoiled brats.

William D. O’Neil October 14, 2014 um 8:26 pm

It really is good that there are some serious, prominent journalists who are both willing and prepared to take on the silly, ill-informed, and self-serving attacks of people like Foer and his ilk. Neither Nocera, Annie Lowery (who wrote the New York mag piece), nor Matt Yglesias (Vox) is a self-pub author so far as I can find, and Nocera and Yglesias have written for trad-pub. They’re saying what they’re saying because it makes sense and is good journalism. More than be said for Streitfeld or Foer.

William D. O’Neil October 14, 2014 um 8:34 pm

By any reasonable standard the story Nate broke about Apple’s clandestine data-gathering is a lot more disturbing than anything Amazon has done in terms of dealing with the publishers.

I really do think that how Amazon has been treating their warehouse workers is unconscionable, however. Just because they can get away with it in our artificially depressed economy doesn’t make it right.

Mackay Bell October 14, 2014 um 10:20 pm

Well, hopefully when the anti-Amazon bashing finally stops (maybe when Hachette closes a deal with them) we can get back to…

Amazon bashing. There’s plenty to complain about. Even on the self-publishing front there is much improvement needed. And they should pay more taxes, pay their workers better, etc.

But do you think Franklin Foer (and Preston and Patterson) give a damn about warehouse workers? If Hachette "won" this dispute, will they shift their efforts to push for better treatment of workers? Does the government action they keep demanding include higher wages and better conditions? Or just price fixing for literary fiction?

If half the press space devoted to Amazon’s "censoring" of writers was focused on demanding better wages and conditions for all workers, politicians would panic it was the start a communist revolution.

Nate Hoffelder October 15, 2014 um 7:50 am

You know, if Hachette really wanted to change popular opinion, this is the tack they should have taken. Mistreating workers makes for a far more compelling story than "Amazon won’t sell out books".

It’s a good thing they’re too self-centered to figure it out.

fjtorres October 15, 2014 um 9:02 am

They’d still run into the roadblock that Amazon pays over 50% above minimum wage and that their warehouses are no better thsn Amazon’s and likely worse. And that bookstore employees barely make minimum wage.
Once you get out of the "english major" echo chamber of Amazon haters you run into people who understand that entry level manual labor jobs are hard. Ask anybody who’s done warehouse work and we can tell you that Amazon’s warehouses are generally well above average. Heat wave or no heat wave.
Can we stop beating that zombie horse?
(And try looking at global minimum wage standards. There are barely three countries that match or exceed Amazon’s warehouse salaries.)

ADS can creep up on you when you least expect it.

fjtorres October 15, 2014 um 9:08 am

Here, let me help:

Nate Hoffelder October 15, 2014 um 12:03 pm

I didn’t mean to say it would be truthful, just that the campaign could be effective. Lots more could be said about Amazon’s warehouses than their treatment of publishers, and the guilt factor could be significant.

Nate Hoffelder October 15, 2014 um 7:55 am

The thing is, my story was difficult to confirm. Proving it in the first place required a certain level of technical knowledge and learning new skills. If I hadn’t already known a bit about XML, csv, and internet tech I would have struggled to understand what I was seeing.

Dan Agin October 14, 2014 um 10:49 pm

The only part of the Joe Nocera column that was a disappointment to me was the very end where he says he wants Hachette to win the dispute with Amazon because the current business model in legacy publishing has worked for him personally. That’s a surprising selfish reason to want a particular political outcome (and this is now politics)–to serve one’s self instead of the community. It would have been better if he had said he wants Hachette to lose even if it hurts his bank account because it will be better for American publishing to change its business model in response to the digital revolution in book production and book distribution. E-books are books by nature of content and in the future all books will be e-books except for expensive printed collector’s items or expensive printed special editions. Nocera ought to see that and he ought to welcome the revolution as civilized progress. Evidently he does not–even if he writes a column refuting the idea that Amazon is a monopoly.

Claude October 14, 2014 um 11:22 pm

A book is not a toaster.

And when Amazon wants to decide which book they sell and at what price, some may fear for culture as we knew it.

But maybe that’s too much to understand for someone who just want to get their goods at the lowest price possible, even if that means that jobs are lost in his country, and that culture may someday be dictated only by multinationals.

Dan Agin October 15, 2014 um 12:42 am

You say: "And when Amazon wants to decide which book they sell and at what price, some may fear for culture as we knew it."

But every bookstore has always made that decision, so what is new?

Timothy Wilhoit October 15, 2014 um 1:19 am

"culture may someday be dictated only by multinationals."

It’s a bit late for that fear. Upwards of 80% of publishing has been controlled by a very few multinational media conglomerates for decades.

puzzled October 15, 2014 um 6:01 am

Amazon wants to sell EVERY book.

And at a price where they will maximise the sales, at a reasonable profit.

It has been proven that the cheaper a book is, they more it will sell. And it will sell enough more to generate more profit to publisher than the higher prices will. So, basically, the publishers are reducing their revenue with agency pricing (this is known as shooting oneself in the foot).

As to the culture being dictated by the multinational conglomerates, that’s publishing today.

puzzled October 15, 2014 um 6:02 am

And, if you’ve been shopping for toasters recently, a book is a toaster.

Dan Agin October 15, 2014 um 8:05 am

I often get the feeling this dispute is between English majors who got dizzy reading Jane Austen and sci-tech majors who got dizzy reading quantum mechanics. Maybe we need to remember Gutenberg. Before Gutenberg books were wonderful objects hand-written and hand-illustrated by monks with the average price of a book in today’s money about $5000–which meant only royalty and rich merchants could afford to own books, which in turn meant the masses did not bother to learn to read because they could not afford anything to read. Gutenberg essentially wiped out the whole hand-crafted book culture. Today there are many people who hold printed (Gutenberg) books in their hands with reverence as if they are Holy Bibles. In the extreme there are printed book collectors who spend thousands of dollars per book and keep them in lovely little home libraries filled with shelves of lovely old printed books that they never read. We will always have printed books as historical mementos and collector’s items, but the mass production of printed (Gutenberg) books will be wiped out by the easy and economical production of digital books (which by the way are a result of technology based on quantum mechanics). So it’s Jane Austen and Gutenberg against Max Planck and history tells us that Max will rule (for a while–until the next technological revolution). Hachette is one of the big dinosaur species going extinct, all the dinosaurs going extinct as a consequence of a hit by an asteroid called the "digital revolution". The dinosaurs scream and roar and stomp the earth but they are going extinct anyway. And my guess is they know it.

Amazon Offers Authors More Crowdsourcing | Digital Book World October 15, 2014 um 8:25 am

[…] In Defense of Amazon (The Digital Reader) The recent New Republic cover story calling Amazon a monopoly roused quite a lot of chatter this week. Whatever your take on the piece’s merits, here’s a roundup of the most compelling counter-arguments put forth in its aftermath. […]

Miral Sattar October 15, 2014 um 9:18 am

This debate is really getting old. I wrote about my thoughts about it a few months ago on PBS. Conclusion, publishers need to step up their game and it’s an awesome time to be a self-pub author ->

Dan Agin October 15, 2014 um 10:09 am

Yes. And 20 years ago we already had digital books on floppy disks and a new "E-reader"– a TV set attached to a Commodore 64 computer. Anyone with eyes in their head and a brain behind the eyes knew what was coming down the pike. The legacy publishers have no excuse except arrogant ignorance.

William D. O’Neil October 15, 2014 um 6:47 pm

Nice article, Miral. Worth reading.

Nate Hoffelder October 16, 2014 um 4:59 pm

Old? The fact that MSM is actually poking holes in Hachette’s media blitz is fairly new, I think.

What’s gotten old is how Hachette’s allies are repeating the same nonsense they were in May, Unfortunately there’s no way to stop them.

Nate Hoffelder October 15, 2014 um 2:44 pm

And now the WP has joined in the fisking of Foer’s piece:

fjtorres October 15, 2014 um 2:57 pm

Kinda telling that the crap at the NYT was ignored (probably as the NYT being the NYT) but one piece at THE NATION actually opened the fisking floodgates.
And now that the WP has chipped in the ball is in the country club millionaires' court. Are they really going to go openly political and call for specific congressional action as Foer wants?
Will they put their money where their mouths are and buy a few congressmen?
Or finally shut up and stop whining?

Nate Hoffelder October 15, 2014 um 3:05 pm

Don’t you mean The New Republic?

And yes, I agree that it is telling that Streitfeld is generally being ignored. Hell, even his own paper declined to comment on him. It’s almost as if they’re making it clear that they have no respect for him.

Nate Hoffelder October 15, 2014 um 3:59 pm

And now Slate jumped in:

I do believe the damn has broken.

William D. O’Neil October 15, 2014 um 6:56 pm

The Slate piece (by Reihan Salam) is particularly thoughtful and penetrating, it seems to me. He’s a progressive conservative and the author of a 2008 trad-pub book (with Ross Douthat). So far as I can tell he’s done no self-pub.

It’s interesting that somehow Foer’s Folly has stimulated so many smart bloggers/journalists to finally weigh in — all contra Foer.

Dan Meadows October 15, 2014 um 7:58 pm

Not surprising though. The anti-Amazon stuff has really gotten way out of hand absurd. It was only a matter of time before people who understand business started pointing out how ridiculous much of it is. Of course, there’s an easy rebuttal I’m sure we’ll hear, if they acknowledge any of this at all, "those people just don’t understand how the book industry works." When in doubt, feign a level of complexity, the secrets to which only insiders are privvy. Tried and true obfuscation of the glaring inadequacies of an argument.

fjtorres October 15, 2014 um 8:09 pm

Okay, the Slate piece is great not just for what it says about Amazon and companies willing to tackle the hardest problems in order to not only win, but to win big. What makes it especially great is its timeliness, coming out today that Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works has announced they have a handle on the toughest problem of our times: fusion.
I really really hope they are right because if they are, they are going to own the planet. And nobody is going to worry about piddling Amazon. 😉

Roundup: Intelligent Debate in the Amazon Hachette Media Circus, Redux – The Digital Reader October 17, 2014 um 11:35 am

[…] monopoly to be broken, Foer inspired contrary editorials in several major publications. A few days ago I rounded up several responses to his piece, and today I am back with […]

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